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Review of  Social interaction, identity and language learning during residence abroad

Reviewer: Danielle N Denny
Book Title: Social interaction, identity and language learning during residence abroad
Book Author: Rosamond Mitchell Nicole Tracy-Ventura Kevin McManus
Publisher: EUROSLA Monograph Series
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Language Acquisition
Issue Number: 27.2946

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


Social Interaction, Identity and Language Learning During Residence Abroad is a collaborative volume compiled by Rosamond Mitchell, Nicole Tracy-Ventura, and Kevin McManus that presents a glimpse of language learning in study abroad as a dynamic research field drawing on diverse psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, ethnographic and poststructuralist traditions. It highlights the value of, and need for, research on the effects of social context, social networks and learner’s identity construction on the success or failure of language learning. The editors take the view that in order to further progress the tradition of research on language learning during study/ residence abroad, it is necessary to bring together the research traditions of theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics. This work is part of a trend within second language acquisition theory that shows the increasing influence of ethnographic and poststructuralist thinking. The idea for this book came out of a conference addressing the same themes, and the editors believe that the collection of work presented here highlights a range of promising directions for future research.

Accordingly, Social Interaction, Identity and Language Learning During Residence Abroad is divided into four sections. Section 1 “Setting the Scene” includes two contributions from the main speakers at the conference. Both authors emphasize the long-term effect of time overseas on identity, work, and personal interactions. In Chapter 1, Ulrich Teichler confronts the well-known benefits of overseas language study with the knowledge that it is becoming less remarkable in an increasingly international world by touching on the current direction of short-term study abroad programs. Similarly in Chapter 2, James Coleman emphasizes the long-term effects of living and studying abroad on several seminal areas of a person’s life. For language learning, he notes the unsettling impact of computerized interaction on language learning and social interaction.

The chapters in Section 2: “Placement Types and Learning Consequences” discuss the connection between language learning and the different scopes and forms of studies abroad. For instance, Kinginger (Chapter 3) focuses on language learning in the context of a social situation presenting the case of American teenagers living with Chinese host families and following how they learned to live together and how language skills developed. Di Silvio, Donovan and Malone (Chapter 4) present a preliminary report on a multi-language study on providing training for host families to foster more interaction. While no significant differences were found, host family training created positive feelings for the host families and an increase in student oral proficiency.

The following three chapters in Section 2 are all based in France, most with the Erasmus program. The Erasmus program was established in Europe in 1987 with the vision that eventually 10% of students would spend a period in another European country during the course of study. This program advanced study abroads from an exceptional choice to a normal option and study abroads have been increasingly emphasized across European countries. Participants are usually highly motivated, and the program includes intensive language courses prior to travel. Each chapter focuses on a unique element of research within this program and its participants. The study in Chapter 5 shows that anxiety is decreased while willingness to communicate is increased by taking a language class before studying abroad. In addition, Chapter 6 gives an account of British college students in the varied positions of language teaching assistant, exchange student, and job intern as they learn French and interact socially. Recreational activities and personality seemed to have a greater effect on language learning than each person’s position, as language growth was comparable across the three groups. Furthermore, Bracke and Aguerre in Chapter 7 concentrate on students living with French speakers compared with those living alone or with international students. They found community involvement and language skills were better in students living with French speakers.

Furthermore, Section 3 “Social Networks and Social Interaction” explores the relationship between social networks, behavior, and language learning for students studying abroad. Gautier and Chevrot, Chapter 8, delineate the participating American students into three categories of social networking to piece together the connection between friendship networks and the degree of formal or informal usage of French. In chapter 9, Roskvist, Harvey, Corder and Stacey also explore networks and discover some of the reasons why diverse networks are created through a case study of two very different teachers working for a year in New Zealand.

Bown, Dewey and Belnap’s study of 82 Arabic speaking students in Palestine show that existing language ability, personal characteristics, and especially gender influence the degree and regularity of student exchanges. However as more time passed all the students noticed richer interactions. In Chapter 11, Hampton assesses the home institution’s use of an online network to encourage students studying abroad to report their experience and help them achieve class goals. Lastly in Chapter 12, through a study of Australian students in Japan, Campbell shows the importance of both computerized and in person interactions on long distance networks and language choices.

The final section on “Social Networks and Social Identities” considers the development of social identities among study abroad participants. In Chapter 13, Trentman focuses on the gendered construction of identities using a poststructuralist framework to analyze how American female participants in Egypt gained access to different social relationships by trying out different personal and cultural identities. Trentman points out that forming a shared community and furthering intercultural involvement can be a result of the program chosen. In Chapter 14, Plews uses Canadian students studying German to investigate the development and change in national identity construction with a poststructuralist frame of reference similar to Trentman’s. Uniquely, this study shows an increased intercultural awareness in conjunction with an intensified sense of being Canadian rather than a dichotomous choice between the two.


Social Interaction, Identity and Language Learning During Residence Abroad would be interesting to people who are based in or partnered with a language learning program. It could be helpful to teachers and program directors seeking to evaluate potential programs to partner with or to improve their own programs by going beyond classroom study to engage with the larger social context. This book successfully makes the reader reevaluate study abroad programs both as language programs and as instruments for social identity. Programs can use this as a starting point for future studies and for specific ideas they can use to improve their programs such as training for host families, organizing social events, and offering language study prior to travel.

This book effectively explores the dynamic of social interaction on language learning. Unique and engaging case studies raise questions about social context and personality that make the reader consider, perhaps for the first time, the wider impact of language study not just for language ability but on a person’s identity and the effect on a community. The case studies address different programs and a variety of social aspects, proving the editors’ point that a wide-range of social elements can affect language learning. Each case study clearly shows that social interaction plays a vital role in language learning. This book comes at a good time, as today, millions of students spend part or all of their studies as temporary residence in a different country, and acquire new language skills, alongside new interpersonal and intercultural skills.

Technology, anxiety, recreational activities, personalities, home stays, work situation, and length of stay, etc. are different aspects of social interaction covered in this book that can affect language learning and a study abroad experience. However, the breadth of these topics does not lend itself to conclusive results in any one area, and a narrower focus on one or two facets of social interaction might have led to more definitive conclusions about a single aspect of social interaction and language learning. While this book does a good job of staying focused on language learning and social interaction, it still feels like a preliminary report leaving much to be said about the topic. The editors grant that, “the provision of adequate accounts of success and failure in language learning, in terms of social contexts, social networks and learners’ identity construction, is a main challenge facing SA/RA [study abroad/residence abroad] research.” Consequently, their chosen authors bring up and address some of the limitations within mainstream second language acquisition research citing that benefits for some areas of language are contradictory or unclear especially in the cases of grammar learning, starting age, and starting level. They believe that research in this field also focuses very narrowly on adolescents and young adults.

Regardless of these limitations, Social Interaction, Identity and Language Learning During Residence Abroad has successfully opened this field for study, leaving a variety of social features to explore more deeply, such as the relationship between technology, host families, living context, and length of stay. Each of these are touched on but further studies could produce more conclusive results. Still, the editors achieved their goal, “to present a snapshot of language learning in study abroad as a dynamic research field drawing on diverse psycholinguistic, sociolinguistic, ethnographic and poststructuralist traditions.” The editors believe that the collection of work presented here highlights a range of promising research directions for this future research program.
Currently I teach English to international students at the university level in the United States. I have spent time in China working with teachers to increase the usage of interactive teaching methodology. I am interested in seeing my students succeed at studying in American and want to increase my knowledge of all the elements that go into language learning from grammar and curriculum to social interaction and living abroad.